When Kingdom Building becomes Empire Building: How Our Witness is Impacted
by Mark L. Russell
Three things to be on the lookout for in assessing your kingdom vision.
As people who want to see the gospel extended to the ends of the earth, we need to be concerned with growth and expanding our influence. In short, we need to be concerned with building God’s kingdom. However, it is easy to confuse “kingdom building” with “empire building.” In fact, the loss of this distinction does great harm to our impact. Below are three things to be on the lookout for in assessing your kingdom vision.
1. Non-disclosure agreements (NDAs). You know you are building an empire and not the kingdom when you ask prospective partners to sign NDAs prior to discussing strategy. NDAs have long been a mainstay in the competitive for-profit business environment in which one company wants to ensure another does not steal an idea and profit from it.
I know of one true story that demonstrates the need for NDAs in the business world. A friend had an idea for a television show and had the opportunity to pitch it to a well-known national media outlet. Prior to the conversation, I talked with an industry veteran who warned that we should have the media outlet sign a NDA. She warned that they would start the conversation by saying they were doing something “similar.”
My friend opted to be trusting and, sure enough, the media company started the phone call saying they were working on something similar. My friend proceeded anyways, shared her idea, and never heard back. About a year later the company unveiled a show exactly like her idea.
But does ministry require the same secrecy and protection? Recently, a large Christian organization working on a potential evangelism project invited me on a call to pursue possible collaboration. Prior to the call, they required me to sign a NDA saying I would not reveal their project to any other Christian organization and would not even talk to people in other divisions of the same organization.
I have little doubt that most people concerned with evangelism would hesitate and view this idea quite negatively. However, I wonder how many of our evangelical organizations are subtly or not-so-subtly in competition with one another.
2. Criticism. You know you are building an empire and not the kingdom when you criticize other evangelical organizations. Through the years I have worked for/with numerous evangelical organizations representing various denominations. The one thing they tend to hold in common is that they are generally fairly sure their unique expression of the faith is best.
Whatever the denomination (or non-denomination!), there is an underlying sentiment that there is a need to expand not only the gospel, but that particular expression of the gospel. Wherever criticism of co-laborers exists, an empire is being built.
3. Partnership. You know you are building the kingdom and not an empire when you recognize that we desperately need to work together to accomplish our task of making disciples of all nations. Jesus had a very clear strategy for producing belief in the world. He showed it when he prayed for all of us: “…that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21).
Jesus did not encourage covert evangelistic strategies that would enable our organizations to impress high net worth donors and access their funds. Jesus did not encourage dog-eat-dog competitiveness that meant you had to beat down your competitors to be the top dog. Rather, he said that the world will know that he was sent by God if we are unified. That is a rather remarkable statement when one considers all the other aspects he could have mentioned (sermons, moral behavior, social ministry, etc.). I am not implying these other things are not important and essential, for Paul even asked, “How can they hear if no one speaks to them?” (Rom. 10:9).
Nor is it to say that we should not put extensive thought into how we communicate the good news. However, we need first and foremost to focus on working together and being unified. That is what is most clear if we take the words of Jesus seriously.
There are undoubtedly many reasons why God designed the world in such a way that people respond to Christian unity with belief in Christ. But some of the reasons are obvious. First, one of the frequent complaints I hear from non-Christians and read about on research reports is that they see Christians divided against one another. Our division and competitiveness do not go unnoticed and the results are unfortunate.
Second, leadership literature and common sense say that production grows exponentially when people work together. This is part of the way God created the world and it’s as true in evangelism as it is in product distribution.
Finally, we are created in God’s image, called to reflect him. Our unity is a reflection of the unity in the Trinity. Without that, the world does not see a beautiful and wonderful part of our God. When we work together as partners in the harvest, we will see results that will let us know that we are not building a temporal empire, but rather an eternal kingdom.
Mark L. Russell, Ph.D., is co-founder of Russell Media and has published over seventy academic and popular-level publications. He has taught at eight universities in five countries. He has lived and worked in Russia, Chile, and Germany. Mark is author of The Missional Entrepreneur (New Hope Publishers, 2010).
EMQ, Vol. 46, No. 4, pp. 392-394. Copyright © 2010 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.